The recent resignation of Toronto Mayor John Tory arising from his extramarital romantic relationship with a subordinate employee has again raised the issue of romance in the workplace and implications for employers.
While no employer should poke its nose into the bedrooms of its employees, the fact of the matter is love and romance is complicated and can give rise to a host of adverse issues which have a detrimental impact in the workplace and can be costly for employers to address.
Sexual harassment claims often arise in romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates given the power imbalance but may also arise in relationships between coworkers when an employee’s affection is not reciprocated or the relationship sours. Employees may claim that they were treated poorly after ending a relationship or after rebuffing unwanted advances especially if that employee is later terminated or passed over for promotion. The demise of a co-worker relationship may also lead to harassment claims if one party continues to pursue the other. Other detrimental impacts include retaliation, targeting or adverse treatment following the end of a relationship, favoritism, conflict of interest, not to mention gossip, quarrels and distracted employees adversely impacting morale and productivity.
To mitigate these risks, employers should consider implementing the following measures:
While an outright ban on dating in the workplace is likely not realistic given that many people in fact meet their partner at work, prohibiting relationships between people in a reporting relationship is a recommended policy. The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines a reporting relationship to be where a person has the power to confer or grant or deny a benefit. Relationships between people in a reporting relationship are the riskiest areas for harassment claims.
- Implement guidelines on expected conduct for those in a personal relationship, including a positive obligation to inform the employer at the outset of a relationship forming which allows the employer to plan and mitigate any actual or potential conflicts of interest, favoritism and allows employer to proactively mitigate and manage any necessary changes in work responsibilities or reporting relationships.
- Require employees involved in personal relationships to provide a written acknowledgment that their relationship is consensual, and they agree to abide by the expected standard of conduct (sometimes called a “love contract”), despite their personal relationship. Such acknowledgment can serve to protect employers from potential liability for sexual harassment claims if the relationship sours or potentially ends badly. A written acknowledgement is also a useful tool for pre-emptively rooting out problematic behaviors (favoritism or public displays of affection) and helps establish a comfortable workplace environment for everyone.
- Ensure that harassment and violence in the workplace policies as well as training programs are regularly reviewed and implemented. This ensures employees are aware of the standard of conduct expected in the workplace, how to make a complaint, and when an investigation into a complaint or concern is required.